Source: Imperial Oil

“We recognize that our communication in the past has not met communities’ expectations and we are working with communities to improve our communications.” This is the response from Imperial Oil’s spokeswoman Lisa Schmidt to the revelation that Imperial Oil has been hiding toxic leaks from the public; not for nine months as was previously reported, but for years—as early as 2019.

Oil sands tailings ponds are dug-out pools in the ground intended to contain waste from bitumen extraction. This is a deadly stew of toxic substances that are seriously harmful to humans, animals, and the environment. Leaks in these tailings lead to seepage into the groundwater that can spread to streams, ponds, and lakes of the surrounding area, especially to the north of the oil sands. We reported earlier this year that Imperial Oil had been effectively ignoring this seepage since May of 2022 and had failed to inform the public of it for nine months following their purported discovery of seepage. 

However, documents filed by Imperial Oil reveal that they have known about it for years. So while Schmidt condescends to us and tells us that they are working on “improving communication”, everyone is left wondering what Imperial is actually doing about the seepage, and exactly how long they have been lying.

Lies all the way down 

Initial reports on the Kearl oil sands led people to believe that knowledge of tailings seepage started in 2022. The fact that both Imperial Oil and the Alberta Energy Regulator kept this knowledge from the public for a whole nine months was enough to spark more than a little outrage. It is known now that the lies go much further back. 

Mandy Olsgard, a local environmental toxicologist, says that both Imperial and the regulator had evidence of tailings seepage much earlier than 2022. She points to reports filed by Imperial to the Alberta Energy Regulator, which acknowledge in both 2020 and 2021 that tailings were seeping from the very ponds that are supposedly designed to contain them. Yet Schmidt at Imperial Oil has argued that any potential impacts to the public are to be mitigated and communicated transparently, and that it is of the utmost priority that the water downstream remains safe. These are vacuous words.

Is covering up a toxic leak from the public for years “communicating transparently?” Is allowing the seepage from these tailings ponds to poison the water for years ensuring the water “remains safe?” Not until May of 2022 were the local First Nations informed of any seepage despite both Imperial Oil and the regulator having knowledge of seepage for several years prior. Even then, First Nations were only informed of “discoloured water” on the pond’s surface, and were not made aware of the actual extent of the seepage until February of this year, when the regulator finally issued environmental protection orders against Imperial. And this was still only after 5.3 million litres of contaminated water had already escaped from a tailings pond. 

In fact, Olsgard said that the regulator had reports of seepage as early as 2019, and this is confirmed by Lauren Stewart, the spokeswomen of the Alberta Energy Regulator. This raises the question: if the regulator knew of seepage as early as 2019, how long has Imperial known?

How far down do the lies of the oil barons go? What is known is that Imperial had instituted a “seepage interception system” in 2015, implying there were concerns about potential seepage at that stage. If these concerns were based on tests of things like contaminated groundwater, an indicator of seepage, then oil companies had been lying about the seepage for at least eight years. 

However, Schmidt was quoted previously saying, “In this period, there were no signs that indicated the system was not functioning according to its intended design”. With this we agree. Seepage was always expected and anticipated in the Kearl oil sands project, as admitted by the company itself in a statement discussing the original design of the project. It seems poisoning people and destroying the planet is their system working “according to its intended design”. They knew this would happen. They knew well in advance. Yet they wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of profits. This is par for the course for the oil industry. Cut corners, lower costs of maintenance, poison innocent people and the earth, maximize profits. 

The wrong type of green 

After the news of seepage became public knowledge, Imperial got to work with damage control—not on the environment of course, but on their reputation. Schmidt said, “There is no indication of adverse impacts to wildlife or fish populations in nearby river systems or risk to drinking water for local communities.” This is like poisoning someone and then, 30 minutes before they will certainly die, saying, “There doesn’t seem to be any impact from the poison.” While they may not have found evidence of negative environmental effects yet, they will. 

It has been well documented that seepage from the oil sands does and has been negatively impacting aquatic life, among other things. For years scientists have found elevated levels of PAHs, a carcinogenic group of substances found in tailings ponds, downstream from the Kearl oil sands and in the Athabasca lake. There have also been many mutilated and deformed fish found in these bodies of water as a result of the toxic substances. Unfortunately, the concern from scientists and workers alike about the health of the aquatic life in the bodies of water downstream from the oil sands has been routinely ignored by governmental regulatory bodies. Now that the public is aware of the extent of seepage from the Kearl facility that has been hidden from them, there is palpable anger from people of the affected region. 

Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro said in a statement, “They say they have contained the seepage. They have not. The fact they did not tell us about the seepage for nine months is the tip of the iceberg.” As we have seen, this is true. Not only did both Imperial and the regulator hide the seepage for nine months, they hid it for years. Now they are also hiding the extent of the damage they have caused to wildlife and nearby communities.

The capitalists have no interest in preserving and protecting the environment; they are interested in a different type of green. Both the bosses and the state happily disregard environmental concerns if it threatens profit. This was shown starkly when the regulators denied Mikisew’s request for a stop-work order at Kearl. Tuccaro says, “The Alberta Utilities Commission and the Alberta government had no problem instituting a moratorium on renewable energy projects, but they won’t take simple regulatory measures in the face of a known human and environmental health problem.” So far, despite the damage that has already been done, it seems the regulators have not committed to any measures to clean up the leak and prevent any further leaks in the future. Their indifference is on display for all to see.

The oil industry cannot ‘regulate’ itself—Not regulation but expropriation 

Ultimately, the seepage and the dishonesty of both Imperial and the Alberta Energy Regulator is a result of the rotten system of capitalism. Not only did Imperial hide the seepage from the public, but they knew seepage was likely to happen from the very beginning of the project. This is not unique to Imperial Oil Ltd.; this is the result of a system that puts profits above all else. The solution to seepage in the oil industry is not more energy regulations as some have proposed, but the complete expropriation of the energy industry by the working class. 

As we have seen, not only has the Alberta Energy Regulator been completely ineffective in preventing or cleaning up the leaks at the Kearl oil sands facility, but they have been helping Imperial cover up their mess from the public all along. This is by design. We have the oil companies essentially “regulating” themselves: the oil industry overlooking the oil industry. Alberta Energy Regulator is infamous for appointing boards full of oil and gas executives and lobbyists, and is 100 per cent funded by the industry. It is easy to see why a trail of corruption and scandal follows in the wake of the Alberta Energy Regulator, and this latest cover-up is just one more example. When toxic leaks inevitably happen due to corner-cutting, the regulators help the oil barons cover it up as long as possible while continuing to extract every last drop of profit from the workers and the earth. 

The only solution is to nationalize the oil industry under workers’ control. Working class people, who are the ones actually forced to face the effects of oil barons’ environmental destruction, are the only force capable of stopping that destruction. The “regulators” have proven that they will never do it for us, and we can only guess how many other tailings ponds are leaking toxic waste into the ground at this very moment. These ponds should be cleaned up at the expense of the oil barons, and their profits put toward a transition to renewable energy. Only with a democratic plan of energy production under the control of the working class can we retool the energy industry and ensure a livable future on this planet. Workers must unite and expropriate the industry!